When it comes to gang investigations, collecting intelligence is everything. Gang investigators are constantly working to identify and track gang members, monitor activity and determine how the gang operates and communicates. And gangs are always evolving. In order to keep up, investigators must constantly gather and analyze information. However, they cannot do it alone and must employ the help of other agencies to collect and share information about gang members and activities.
Detective Jeff Bergman has been with the Fairfax County Virginia Police Department for 22 years and in the gang investigation unit for 11.
“I’ve been involved in the gang game for a long time, and when I first started, corrections and probation was sort of an underutilized and overlooked part of law enforcement,” said Bergman. “We never really thought about how valuable incarcerated individuals would be to our gang investigations.”
Gang activity has changed a lot in recent years. For one thing, gangs operate “underground” more than they once did, and do not openly recruit members in the same way. This makes it more difficult for officers to identify and track gang members and gather intelligence about their activities. However, one place that has been a virtual goldmine for law enforcement when it comes to intelligence about gang activities is the nation’s prison and parole system.
“The intel we get from the Department of Corrections and its probation and parole officers is very important for us to follow the gang-connected individual and solve more crimes,” said Bergman.
Tracking Juvenile Gang Members
“Collecting information about suspected juvenile gang members is absolutely critical,” said Bergman. “That is the point where we can nip it in the bud.”
Juveniles can be extremely dangerous gang members because they strive to prove their worthiness and do not understand the life-changing consequences of their actions.
About three years ago, the Virginia Gang Investigators Association spearheaded the passage of a law requiring mandatory reporting of information regarding juvenile gang activity to local law enforcement. Formalizing this partnership was a critical step in addressing and reducing gang activity in the region, particularly in juveniles.
Establishing Formal Partnerships
A recent report, Policy Implications of Police-Probation/Parole Partnerships, elaborated on the importance of such partnerships. The research provided seven recommendations for policy and practice:
1.) Formalize police-probation partnerships as programs with clear, measureable goals and objectives.
2.) Define policies and legal parameters on searches of probationers/parolees conducted by law enforcement with or without the presence of the probation/parole officer.
3.) Institute policies on interagency interactions that provide boundaries and preserve each agency’s mission.
4.) Promote partnership research through practitioner training/education.
5.) Garner political and public support through buy-in and transparency.
6.) Reserve enhanced supervision partnerships for high-risk probationers/parolees.
7.) Improve resource allocation for community corrections.
Bergman, who was involved in establishing Virginia’s mandatory reporting law, said that police agencies must be proactive in establishing and maintaining relationships with corrections and probation agencies.
More Training for Both Sides
Part of building this partnership requires a change in mindset on the part of both law enforcement and probation officers, according to Bergman. For police officers, it can be difficult to accept that people who have broken the law may not go to jail but instead may receive diversion or probation.
“When police find out offenders are not going into a facility, it can be hard for us to understand,” said Bergman. To resolve this issue, Bergman’s agency conducted a series of internal educational meetings to prepare officers for this reality.
Similarly, parole and probation officers had to get out of their “nine-to-five mentality,” according to Bergman. They began doing more “ride-alongs” with police in the evenings and started conducting home visits during off hours to get a more realistic view of their clients’ activities. All probation officers now receive significant training about gangs and the signs they should look for that may indicate gang affiliations and activities (such as tattoos depicting gang insignia or code). In addition, the agency has specially trained many probation officers as gang investigators.
This partnership has led to better awareness of gang activities, solved multiple cases, and ultimately contributed to the reduction of gang activity in the region.
“In working with probation officers, I consider them equals and part of the team,” said Bergman. “What it comes down to is that we don’t tell each other how to do our jobs, but our jobs are made easier if we work together.”